The Little Red Library

The library in my hometown was a little red brick building no more than 15 feet square. It sat on a corner shading itself under the leafy oaks and elms in summer and shivered against a white arctic bareness in winter. It was as sleepy as the rural township it served in America’s dairy heartland, but it woke me up to the world.

I can still recall how the screen door slammed shut behind me in the heat of a July day. Only book bugs were welcome. There were no comfy seats, no pillows, no coffee machines or computers. There was barely enough room to ‘swing a cat’ in it, as folks used to say, and almost as few books as there were people in the town.

The librarian sat behind an old oak desk which was polished and pocked. Her soft silvering hair was tied back in a bun. She wore thick cat’s eye glasses, a flowery cotton dress and a smile as warm as the day. She was a retired teacher who loved children as much as she loved books.

There was no sign to keep hush, but I dare not speak. The library felt as sacred as a Sunday morning. The only sound was the soft whirring hum of an electric fan, the occasional creak of the librarian’s chair and a cricket chirruping somewhere among the shelves tall as August corn stalks.

How I loved the smell of them; books from floor to ceiling standing to attention in regimented rows. Those for the young were within easy reach.

However, I often found myself on tip toe wandering among exotic titles about places I longed to go. These broadened the horizons of a whole new world for a dairy farmer’s daughter whose biggest weekly adventure was a trip to the library.

Only two books could be taken out at a time. I’d bask in the experience of choosing them even as many of my friends basked on the beach at the local lake. I’d finger their spines, dip in and out of their blurbs and wade knee deep into first chapters before taking the plunge.

When the choice had finally been made, I’d carry my books to the librarian. She would meet my gaze with knowing eyes; as if she were an accomplice in my escape from boredom, loneliness, sorrows and secrets that, even as an adult, I am still too young to bear.

Did she know? Could she sense how I would absorb alternative realities; create happier endings for myself; new beginnings in far off places?

She’d open the back cover of each book, remove the stained manila card from the pocket and I would add my name to the generations of familiar names before me. Then she’d roll her date stamp in deep blue ink. Click-stamp, click-stamp, the books were mine for two whole weeks.

I have long since been away from all that I knew as a child. The librarian is gone now and so too is the little red library, though the building remains. And yet, I confess, I often return there in the heat of life; when bored, or lonely or in need of escape from sorrows and secrets too many to bear.